Get Comfy

Mark Mullins
7 min readSep 15, 2020

No need to await the new normal — it’s already here and wants to stay forever

The new normal arrived in mid-March at the peak of viral contagion.

We can see evidence for this in social attitudes and government policies.

The change is permanent unless we collectively decide otherwise.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

“Again he shook his head. The world’s gone mad, he thought. The dead walk about and I think nothing of it … How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it enough!”

Richard Matheson, I Am Legend, 1954

Reality TV

I find that television allows me to reminisce about the good old days.

I see people there who talk and engage and even laugh with each other, if it is a light hearted show, with not one mask, excessively clean hand, or nasty stare to be seen.

Even the serious dramas (say, a whodunit mystery murder) seem quite natural, with the expected element of scripted conflict and no indication of social nervousness, blaming, or distancing whatsoever.

These scenes are mostly filmed up close, just like humans have always interacted, and they are exactly in keeping with my personal experience, spanning five decades of socializing on this planet.

Until this year, that is.

I always knew that the shows were fictional, a slightly exaggerated slice of life meant to entertain, but I never would have guessed that they would one day mimic science fiction (a narrative form that often takes reality and bends it into dystopian and barely recognizable shapes).

For example, from today’s warped perspective, who knew that:

· “Friends” would be seen as way too touchy,

· “The Sopranos” was culturally appropriating,

· “Seinfeld” conversations had more depth than today’s masked versions,

· “Star Trek” was right about holodeck virtual reality supplanting physical contact, and

· “Cheers” would be permanently closed as a non-essential business?

It doesn’t take more than a few moments of television watching to see just how out of kilter our current world is with the place that came before it.

We see our dearly missed society’s history played out in pantomime on the small screen. It is almost as if every show is being broadcast on the Documentary Channel, featuring anthropological digs of our recently lost and buried past.

With this realization that yesterday is no more, and coming after only a few months of a pandemic-fueled social crisis, I think we can only conclude that we are already living a new normal life.

It has crept in with a stealthy stride and a determination to stay forever. There is no need to look forward to find it, because the future has already come to us and the new normal resolutely rejects the old ways. We find ourselves on a one-way path and there is no going back.

New Norms

How can we know with any certainty that the new normal has arrived?

One approach is to track what people are saying and doing.

For example, I googled “new normal” and was overwhelmed with over 100 million results, a true sign of the times.

The puny 800,000 hits returned by my search for “old normal” is just further confirmation of the fact that the world has changed irrevocably.

Actions, of course, speak louder than words, and what we see everywhere is a reluctance to drop anti-pandemic procedures in favor of just behaving naturally.

This can be seen in growing preferences for mask wearing, continuing universal adherence to social distancing, widespread fidelity to all Covid regulations and restrictions, and a certain comfort with the new routines for work, school, travel, and play.

Another way to identify the new normal is through public policy, especially when it is supported by strong majorities in the polls (as is the case in most places).

The following chart shows the daily global median level of government policy severity measured across 185 countries, which is directed at reducing human interactions and, hence, viral contagion.

The trends are unambiguous.

First, a huge policy tightening everywhere around the world in mid-March, right as viral contagion peaked in Europe, Asia, and much of North America.

Second, a partial drop in policy severity as measured cases peaked and then declined to non-pandemic levels.

Finally, a stall out since June, with policy remaining very tight (and far above the old normal setting of zero).

This continuing policy tightness over the past three months comes with the knowledge that the formal pandemic is over for the vast majority of countries (outside of Latin America, India, Russia, and a handful of others).

Measured Covid cases may be up here or there but the danger of the pandemic, as seen in illness, hospitalizations, and deaths, is at negligible levels in most places.

As well, any place that had a pandemic spike has seen no resurgence in mortality, with the exceptions of Iran, Israel, and Japan (and the latter has very low mortality numbers anyway).

Today’s extremely low rates of pandemic death almost everywhere would therefore justify easy old normal policies, but we instead see a continuation of the fearful attitudes formed in March.

This is evidence of new normal thinking and policy actions.

Money Matters

A further policy dimension that is here to stay is the attitude expressed by central bankers and finance ministers towards the economy and markets.

Central bank actions that started in March were unprecedented, driving interest rates below zero in many places and expanding their balance sheets by over $6 trillion, at least three times the magnitude of the reaction during the Great Recession of 2008.

On top of this, government deficit spending in Europe and North America alone will increase by over $4 trillion this year, equivalent to 10% of the economy.

These fastest-and-greatest-ever financial decisions are set to remain in place for years. Politicians usually pretend that such emergency measures are temporary, but even that pretense is gone in todays’ environment. Government will be more powerful and interventionist than ever in the new normal.

This combination of overwhelming monetary and fiscal stimulus, combined with an absence of a financial crisis as in 2008, led to stock markets regaining their old highs within six months, even as the economy slumped into the deepest recession in 300 years.

It remains to be seen whether the economy can reflect this investor optimism by growing consistently into and through 2021, unaided by further artificially loose money policies.

If anything is a marker of the new normal, it is the capacity to disappoint our ever hopeful expectations.

Getting It Right

So, what is the big deal if many people want to fundamentally change how society works, if they generally support government actions, and if government responds with extraordinary interventions and massive spending?

The issues are really ones of balance, proportion, trade-offs, and rationality, and what we believe to be the natural state of our society.

In this context, here are some obvious questions for now and the future:

Does it make sense to physically avoid each other for a pandemic wave that has come and gone in most places, especially when population immunity through contact is the only viable end state?

Can we afford to replace the real economy of jobs, businesses, and incomes with government debt-financed payments?

Is there a controlled economy that can replace the real McCoy, where freedom, risk-taking, and innovation drive progress?

Is it healthy or socially beneficial to cover our faces with masks when we meet in public places? Is it sensible to continually interfere with a basic function like breathing, or hide the most distinctive and expressive marker of our personalities?

Will our societies be strengthened by limiting our social interactions to the internet or small groups of six? Are larger gatherings, audiences, teams, and in-person community groups no longer essential to building social cohesion?

Do we need to force everyone in society to follow public policies, like quarantine, contact avoidance, and movement restrictions, that are better focused on specific dangerous activities or vulnerable people?

Can we thwart nature and evolution by becoming hypochondriacs regarding viruses, germs, or communicable diseases, starting with Covid but possibly extending to influenza and other diseases?

Is it sensible to have government set the permissions and boundaries for all of our public activities, ranging from work and play conditions to public gatherings and political protest?

Do we want to continue to mix socially in ways that induce anxiety, awkwardness, anger, blame, and shame? Will we never be able to meet each other again in a natural, physical, and unself-conscious way?

Do we want less freedom to move, connect, speak, associate, dress, or behave as we see appropriate?

I lean to a “no” answer on these questions but, at the end of the day, it is something that can only be resolved through our collective democratic process.

The end result of that messier-than-usual process will determine the extent to which the new normal becomes either a temporary blip in history or an unprecedented new direction for our societies.

An absolute prerequisite to getting the best answers is to allow all questions to be posed and all perspectives to be aired.

The current environment of social censorship, name calling, groupthink, and partisan politics is not promising in this regard.

Nevertheless, it is for us to decide: new normal, for only today or forever?

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Mark Mullins

I am the CEO at Veras Inc and an expert in global markets, economics, and public policy